The wonderful world of economic rationalists

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Sunday, 18 May 2014 18:30 by Ken Wolff
The world of the economic rationalists took hold in politics in the 1980s. Their approach, which was discussed in ‘The rise and fall of a shibboleth’, has moulded the world for the past 30 years. Government decisions regarding national economies have been guided by it. International bodies like the IMF, the World Bank and the OECD have followed its tenets. In Australia the Productivity Commission and the Grants Commission have been influenced by it. 

With that pervasive influence, what has economic rationalism actually achieved?

When it was accepted in the 1980s, it was seen as an answer to ‘stagflation’, which had dominated a large part of the 1970s. ‘Stagflation’ was a period of high inflation despite falling or very slow economic growth; it wasn’t really supposed to happen under the predominant economic models of the time. High inflation was usually thought to be a problem resulting from an economy ‘overheating’ (growing too fast), not from when it wasn’t growing at all.

Economic rationalism may have been the answer to stagflation, but it has not stopped the usual market problems. There was a recession in the late 1980s followed by ‘the jobless recovery’ of the early 1990s; then the ‘tech bubble’ later in the 1990s, which burst in 2000; and there was the GFC in 2007–08. Australia came through the GFC better than most western nations because it briefly abandoned economic rationalism and went back to Keynesian economics, where the government steps in with spending to stimulate the economy when private sector activity has slowed. Franklin D Roosevelt had used the Keynesian approach in America during the Great Depression while, at that time, Australia had followed the Bank of England’s austerity approach. But after surviving the worst of the GFC, Australia has slipped back to economic rationalist approaches, and more so since the election of the Abbott government.

The one success that economic rationalism has had is increasing inequality in the distribution of national income. That ‘success’ has spread around the globe.

On the global scale, Oxfam pointed out before the World Economic Forum (WEF) in January this year that 85 individuals between them had as much wealth as the poorest half (3.5 billion people) of the world’s population. Credit Suisse in its Global Wealth Report for 2011 stated that global wealth had risen from USD 203 trillion in January 2010 to USD 231 trillion in June 2011. It also found that there were then 29.7 million adults with household wealth greater than USD 1 million, making up less than 1% of the global population but owning 38.5% of global wealth.

In the USA, average real income increased 116% between 1945 and 2010. The share of national income going to the top 1% increased from 2.5% in 1945 to 19.8% in 2010 (which was down from 23.5% in 2007, largely as a result of the GFC). In that time, the top 0.1% increased their income by 395%. Between 1979 and 2007, the period of economic rationalism, income increased by 275% percent for the top 1% of households, 65% for the next 19%, just under 40% for the next 60% of households; and in those 28 years the income of the bottom 20% increased by only 18%.

In the UK in 1997, the entire bottom 90% of income earners had an average income of just over £10,500. The top 1% had incomes eighteen times bigger and the top 0.1% sixty times bigger. By 2007 the average income of the bottom 90% was just under £12,500 a year, but the income of the top 0.1% was then ninety-five times larger, averaging well over £1m a year.

In Canada, the real median income has barely moved since the 1980s, although in the 1950s and 1960s it was growing fast enough to double every 20 years. In the same time, the top-earning 1% of Canadians have increased their share of national income from 7.7% to 13.8%. In the 1970s the average CEO was earning about twenty-five times the average worker’s wage and in 2010 that had become almost two hundred and fifty times.

In Australia the top 10% of taxpayers had 34.6% of total national income in 1941 — it has not been as high since, but the top tax rate was also much higher then. It fell to 25% between 1974 and 1985 but has since grown again to 31% in 2010. For the top 1% their share was 10.8% in 1941, fell to about 4.5% between 1976 and 1984 and in 2010 was 9.2% (after reaching a peak of 10.1% in 2006 before the GFC).

Recently the ACTU also commissioned a report using another classical economic means of considering inequality — the difference between the labour and profit shares of national income. In the 1990s there was stability between productivity and wages; both productivity and real wages grew at 2.1% each year:

Wages decoupled from productivity in the 2000s. Between 2000 and 2012, productivity rose by an average 1.3% per year, while real hourly labour income rose by only 0.6% per year on average. This meant that labour’s share of national income fell over the decade, and fell quite sharply. In 2000, the labour share was 65.6% — this had fallen to 59.7% by 2012.

Again, this is a global phenomenon:

In developed countries, the share of labour income declined, falling by 5 percentage points or more between 1980 and 2006-07 — just before the global financial crisis — in Australia, Belgium, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States, and by 10 points or more in Austria, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand and Portugal.

All these measurements are reinforced by the Gini coefficient which has increased in most developed nations since the 1980s. The OECD suggests that France, Belgium and Hungary have managed to maintain their Gini coefficient at about the same level (no increase or decrease in inequality), Turkey and Greece actually managed to reduce inequality, but in all other OECD countries the coefficient has risen, indicating increased income inequality. Out of the 34 nations in the OECD, on a ranking from least to most unequal, Australia ranked twenty-sixth, Canada twenty-fourth, the UK twenty-eighth, and the USA thirty-first. Slovenia ranked highest with the lowest level of inequality, a Gini coefficient of only 0.24, and Chile the worst with 0.49. The US Gini coefficient has risen from 0.39 in 1968 to 0.48 in 2012.

You will see many different Gini coefficient figures because different researchers use differently defined incomes as their starting point — gross, disposable (gross income less taxes) or final income (disposable income plus government transfers). For example, the Productivity Commission found in Australia that, measured by the Gini coefficient, inequality in household income in 2009–10 was 0.426 for gross income, 0.389 for disposable income, and 0.341 for final income. These figures suggest that tax scales and government transfers in Australia do have some impact on inequality, although not stopping it rising over time.

Whichever figures are used, there is little doubt that inequality has increased due primarily to rapid increases in income for the top 1% and, to a lesser extent, the top 10%. The bottom groups have not missed out completely but have been getting a smaller share of the increasing wealth in most nations.

There are other factors, aside from labour income, that contribute to income inequality. A significant one for the top 10%, and particularly the top 1%, has been a large increase in ‘capital and other’ income. The extent of part-time and casual work also has an influence by providing lower labour income. The OECD has suggested that more balanced policy approaches between temporary and permanent employment is one measure to help address inequality.

Another contributing phenomenon in America (and it would be interesting to see if it applies in Australia), has been the loss of middle-ranking jobs, largely due to the automation of routine tasks, not only for manual labour (classified as routine manual work) but by the computerisation of office, sales and administrative work (classified as routine cognitive work). There has been an increase in the number of jobs for non-routine work, both cognitive and manual. The former (cognitive) requires high levels of education and generally commands higher wages, but the latter (manual) involves work such as cleaning, food services, security services, home help, and so on. This is leading to a polarisation of the workforce in America, with more high-paid jobs, more low-paid jobs, and fewer in the middle.

Why are governments, world-wide, still listening to the economic rationalists when it is clear that rising inequality is their greatest achievement?

Government decisions are critical to what happens regarding inequality.

The decisions governments have made, however, since the 1980s, largely at the behest of the economic rationalists, have actually worsened inequality: for example, decisions taken by many western governments to reduce taxes for the wealthy, the argument being that this stimulates growth for the benefit of all. A paper prepared by the US Congressional Research Service, however, found that since 1945 reductions in the top tax rate (from 90% to 35%) in America ‘appear to be associated with the increasing concentration of income at the top of the income distribution’. The paper found no correlation between lower top marginal tax rates and saving, investment or productivity. (As an interesting sidenote, this report was initially released in September 2012 but was then withdrawn at the insistence of Senate Republicans before being updated and re-released in 2013 with no substantive changes.)

So despite continuing talk about the need for lower tax rates to encourage economic growth, it appears this is, in Australian parlance, ‘a furphy’. It has achieved nothing other than to increase income inequality.

And, Tom Conley of Griffith University suggests that governments have actually abandoned the goal of greater equality:

Governments could still ameliorate the negative impacts of market outcomes but, in recent years, they seem increasingly less willing to do so, often arguing that such efforts will impede the growth process.

A different approach is taken by economist James Kenneth Galbraith, son of the more well-known, John Kenneth Galbraith. In his work Inequality and Instability Galbraith argues that economic and social instability is not a result of inequality but:

… rather, inequality is a symptom of the shaky and, in the end, unsustainable foundations of an economy lurching from crash to crash as it maintains a reliance on credit-fuelled stock or asset bubbles that provide massive rewards to select few …

Galbraith and others have pointed out that the levels of inequality in America before the GFC were near the levels before the Great Depression, reinforcing the idea that inequality is, indeed, a symptom of a poorly functioning economic system (often about to break under the strain, if those two examples hold good).

Galbraith also contends that too much attention is paid to the statistical analysis of inequality and not enough to broader social support mechanisms, such as health services, schooling, higher education, social security payments, housing programs, and so on. As government support for such programs declines, as it has generally since the rise of economic rationalists in the1980s, people feel less well-off and less secure, and inequality has more impact not only on those at the bottom of the socio-economic tree but also on the middle class.

Inequality has usually been offset by progressive taxation scales and government transfers, although the OECD argues that ‘government transfers and taxes alone would be neither effective nor financially sustainable’. But it does suggest the need for greater investment in on-the-job training and formal education over the working life as a means of maximising participation in the workforce, and thereby incomes.

Between the Galbraith approach and the suggestions of the OECD, there does appear a way forward, a way to reverse this trend towards greater inequality, and governments need to address these issues:

  • the broader social mechanisms that support families and households, including social security payments
  • the impact of casual and part-time work on livelihoods, on equality and poverty
  • the reintroduction of genuinely progressive tax scales
  • measures of well-being (as discussed in a previous post, ‘Bringing Gross National Happiness into play’).
If such measures are adopted, there is more likelihood that greater equality in income distribution will follow.

But, based on the evidence, the one really big step governments can take to reverse rising inequality is to abandon economic rationalism.

What do you think?